When the rest of the sharemarket rallied from early March, one stock, which had previously traded in lockstep with the market, was left behind: Infratil going backwards instead.
That's because some investors now think the company has a debt problem, the big bogey of the moment. Those investors may well think their fears are confirmed when Infratil reports a hefty bottom-line annual loss tomorrow, probably around the $200 million mark.
But Infratil is no Nuplex with recession-battered earnings. The losses will mostly be paper losses from writing down the value of its listed investments, particularly its 3.3% of Auckland International Airport, and 33% of Australia-based Energy Developments.
Most likely, Infratil will also write down the value of its British airports, which have been reporting mounting losses as the global recession bites particularly savagely in that country.
In a sense, that's all noise. A key number will be operating earnings, which should come in at about $350m, up 11% on the previous year. The underlying earnings of its key assets, such as its 51% stake in TrustPower and 66% of Wellington International Airport, continue to grow at a healthy pace. But the value of Infratil's assets does matter in the context of its bank debt.
Rob Bode, an analyst at First NZ Capital, says one of Infratil's three banking covenants is that shareholders' funds must be above 40% of total tangible assets.
In early April, Bode calculated this ratio could have fallen as low as 43.3% from 49% in September last year. Infratil had kilometres to spare within the other two operating earnings-based covenants, he reckoned. Later in April Matt Henry at Goldman Sachs JBWere conducted a similar exercise and estimated shareholders' funds were sitting at about 48%.
Of the company's main $520m banking facility, a third is rolled over each year and $174m was duly extended in February. A presentation the company gave to analysts this month showed $327.4m net bank debt at March 31.
Given how gloomy the mood in global financial markets was in February, I would have thought if Infratil really was in trouble with its banks, it would have shown up then. Assuming the banks keep rolling over debt, the first major refinancing event Infratil faces is in May 2011, when $112m of its listed bonds mature.
Infratil has a total of about $750m in listed bonds, including nearly $240m in perpetual bonds, all of which rank below its bank debt, which no doubt gives its bankers considerable comfort, but which also led analysts to the conclusion Infratil is over-geared in the current environment.
All of Infratil's bonds are trading at significant discounts to face value so issuing replacement bonds now doesn't look like a viable option, but who knows how sentiment will have changed by 2011.
Acting chief executive Marko Bogoievski says the bank rollover was uneventful. "There wasn't really even a conversation," he says, although the margin Infratil has to pay has gone up, in line with margins everywhere. Nevertheless, Bogoievski says investor perception is a reality which the company must address. Rather than raising equity at huge discounts, as other companies have been doing, Infratil has been selling assets.
In April it sold Fullers Ferries for $40m, yielding an estimated $12m profit over book value, and later that month it sold properties for $23.1m, a $4.1m profit over book value.
Bogoievski says Infratil will probably exercise its put option to sell its 90% stake in Luebeck Airport in Germany back to the city. That will yield about $60m.
Another possible source of funds is Infratil's warrants which lapse in July. If exercised at $1.62 they could raise $136.7m. The shares mostly traded above that level last week, increasing the likelihood the warrants will be exercised.
While Infratil clearly has plenty of time to sort out its balance sheet, Bode's argument that the company needs to position itself to take advantage of current conditions is compelling. "Arguably, Infratil's model and the market are probably much more prospective than they have been for a long time," he says. With a deregulation-minded government, likely opportunities for private participation in infrastructure projects, and the exit of private equity buyers prepared to pay over the odds for the sorts of assets Infratil favours, "the market is ripe with opportunity".
Rob Mercer at Forsyth Barr suggests Infratil also consider selling its stakes in Energy Developments, Auckland Airport and Austral Pacific.
* Jenny Ruth is a freelance journalist and a columnist for The Independent.